Dir. PaulProvenza. US. 2004. 90mins.

A documentary exploring the art and history of the world's filthiest joke, The Aristocrats is a no-frills primer onthe craft of comedy. Co-executive producers Paul Provenza and Penn Jilette (thespeaking half of the magic-comedy duo Penn & Teller) have tapped the brainstrust of professional US comedy as well as some big British names, gatheringtogether over a three-year period one hundred stand-up performers, writers, andcomedy producers all riffing on the same gag.

Certain to achieve cult status, it should find a niche inurban markets before moving into robust DVD sales - given that Provenza andJillette shot over 100 hours of material, choosing DVD extras will pose noproblem.

A large warningsign - extreme filth - will both entice prospective viewers and ward off thosegentler souls for whom bodily functions and bestiality are no laughing matter.But international business beyond English-speaking territories is less certain.Even the UK may pose a problem: as Python Eric Idle points out, "in England,there's very little an aristocrat won't do".

Every trade has its insidestories, and professional comedians are no different: after the lights go downand the audience has gone home, comedians like to keep each other laughing.Over the years, the joke known as "The Aristocrats" has achieved the status asthe ultimate jokesters' joke. "It's one you tell the musicians after the show,"says Carlin. And for good reason. It's untellable in any public sphere. Thissense of looking behind the curtain only adds to the film's allure.

The joke is simple - aspecies known as a "switch" - with an easy set-up and the same two-wordpunch-line: "The Aristocrats". But the craft lies in the delivery of the middlebits. Of course, once heard, the joke's power is diminished. The film-makerscleverly up the ante by having their performers relate variations on the themeand the effect of changes in public attitude and 'shockability' on the way itis delivered.

Anyone who enjoys hearing ajoke well-told or seeks to hone their own joke-telling skills will relish theopportunity to see the masters of stand-up - Robin Williams, Billy Connolly,George Carlin, Don Rickles and on and on - providing fascinating insights intotiming, idiom, vocabulary, rhythm and movement. Female comedians tell afemale-oriented version, while others relate anecdotes of epic tellings lastingover several minutes.

Indeed, the high point - orlow - is a sequence lifted from a Friar's Club Roast held in New York Cityshortly after September 11 and the so-called "end of comedy." The event,despite much misgiving, had gone ahead albeit without many laughs - that is untilcomedian Gilbert Gottfried brought down the house with a spectacular rendition.Those who were at the Roast recount the cathartic release.

The film isn't much to lookat - it was shot on consumer video cameras in nearly ad hoc circumstances - butthis approach allows for an energy and spontaneity from the performers, many ofwhom seem to be captured on the fly and who might otherwise have declined toengage in such ribaldry had there been time for sober consideration.

Whilst not every comedian isas sharp as the next - and some are downright weak - the sheer scale of theenterprise proves that in joke-telling, as Jillette puts it, "it's the singer notthe song".

Prod co: Mighty Cheese
Int'l sales: Peter Adam Golden,Farley Ziegler, (1) 310 399 5570
Prod: Peter Adam Golden
Ed: Emery Emery & Paul Provenza
Mus: Gary Stockdale